Stone Lithography: Part One
Updated: May 24
In November 2017, I had the pleasure of attending a course on Stone lithography at Citylit College, taught by professional lithography artist Simon Burder. This course was funded by an ICON Book and Paper Group Bursary as part of a wider project on Gurmukhi lithographic books and their conservation. Having completed a complex re-binding of a lithographed Guru Granth Sahib, I was keen to gain a better understanding of the art of lithography. Known as “Pathhar Chhaap” in Panjabi,
The course started with the creation of a design on paper and I chose to create a border in the Kashmiri "vel" (vine) style seen often on 19th century Sikh lithographs. This was more complex than initially thought as the floral border patterns contained geometry which was concealed behind the flowing vines and flowers.
Before the design could be transferred onto the stone, it was necessary to grind away all traces of previous designs from the stone slab. Lithography revolves around the creation of marks on a stone using a greasy substance and these greasy marks attract ink and repel water. Before the stone is ready to be drawn on, it is essential to grind away the surface layer to erase unwanted marks. This was a long process and was done by grinding one stone slab against another with a layer of wet abrasive grit in between. We also learned that this preparation could be done with a tool known as a levigator, which is a heavy abrasive iron block with a wooden handle. It took 40 minutes, using successively fine grades of grit before the stone was ready.
Once the stone was ready, I turned my drawn design into a pin-prick image and used red chalk to transfer this design onto the stone using the method of “pouncing”. This basically involves placing the pricked design onto the stone and pushing red chalk through the pricked holes to create a temporary image. Being careful not to blow the chalk away, I used a greasy lithography drawing ink to turn the “pounced” design into a full drawing. One major challenge of lithography is that once the ink has touched the stone it cannot be erased fully so I had to be very careful to produce a neat drawing.
The pounced outline of a vine border.
Adding further detail to the design. The vine is actually formed of inter-locking triangles. (ignore the red streak in the middle, this is a feature of the stone)
The completed design.
After completing the drawing, the entire surface of the stone is dusted with a layer of chalk followed by gum arabic mixed with a dilute acid. Known as the gum etch, this stage forges a closer bond between the greasy ink and the stone surface. Once dry, the gum layer was wiped and buffed with a wet cloth to produce a smooth even layer.
The freshly applied layer of gum arabic.
Before the stone could be used for printing, the ink used for drawing the design had to be cleaned off with paraffin. This initially seemed alarming as the image seem to disappear. However, this was not the case as the image was actually embedded in the stone as a greasy layer.
The actual image with the drawing ink cleaned off.
“Non-drying” proofing ink was rolled onto the stone to produce a test image. The lithographic press is quite unlike an etching press or a letter-press. It works by pulling the paper and stone through a narrow gap. You can see this in the historic video below.
The inked image, ready for printing.
Once we were happy with the initial “proof” print, the proofing ink was cleaned off and replaced with oil-based printing ink. During the application of ink, it is necessary to keep the stone wet as this ensures the ink is attracted only to the greasy design area and repelled from the surrounding wet gummed areas. Lithography stones are made of porous, Bavarian limestone from central Europe and considerable amounts of water is needed. In 19th century Panjab, lithography presses had a separate person employed to ensure stones were kept wet whilst printing as they were prone to dry out in the warm weather. For this reason, autumn is the best season for lithography as the air is damp. This is probably the reason why some lithographed Guru Granth Sahibs were recorded as being printed in October. Although I only printed a few examples, the image on the stone could be printed an infinite amount of times provided that the stone is stored carefully.
The printed design on paper.
The floral "vel" border on a lithographed Guru Granth Sahib.
Stay tuned for the second part of this blog where I will detail the process of transfer lithography, the second method I learnt on the course.